One of the more surprising things about the life-ways of primitive societies is their persistence: so much so that one of them can frighten us by suddenly resurfacing a thousand years after it seemed to be stone dead. Up to that disconcerting moment the most we are inclined to allow the remote past is that it may linger on as a sanctified revival or a quaint reconstruction. It does not trouble us if we find that some of our dearest religious rites are as old as Babylon - Baptism, for instance. We could easily accept that the Druidic costumes we see at the modern Welsh cultural assemblies called Eisteddfoddu refer back to ceremonies initiated long before Christ. It would amuse us to be told that every time we spit out a 'Pooh!' or a 'Pfoo!' in the heat of argument we are echoing the habit of those fourth-century heretics known as Messalians, who cultivated spitting as a religious practice in the belief that the air is filled with legions of miniature demons. So at any rate W.E.H. Lecky suggests in his The Rise and Influence of Rationalism in Europe, quoting the learned 19th-century French scholar Alfred Maury, author of such abstruse books as Fées dans le Moyen Age and Histoire de la Magie. There is, however, one serious caveat attaching to every archaism. However slight such perdurables may be, however sweetened by the passage of time, it is wise to presume the co-existence of others not at all tempered by age. The Hunger Strike is one such.
LRB 6 August 1981 | PDF Download